Like his most recent film, The Visit (2015), a found-footage riff on fairy tales and Grand Guignol conventions, M. Night Shyamalan's Split finds the once promising, but largely derided, writer/director firmly in his horror-thriller comfort zone, playing up the suspense and tension while seeding the ground for something bigger. "The Twist" is what made Shymalan's career back in the late '90s and early 2000s, especially the unexpected blockbuster The Sixth Sense (1999), but it also became an albatross around his neck, cranking up expectations each time he stepped behind the camera to the point that he risked either audience disappointment or being labeled a repetitive hack. He finds an interesting sweet spot with Split, holding out until the very end and then delivering something that I don't imagine anyone was expecting.
But, let's step back a bit. Split is a slicker version of various grimy exploitation tropes that is dressed up with a lot of psychological talk about dissociative identity disorder (there was a lot of talk in The Visit about the psychological condition known as "sundowning," which suggests that Shyamalan does his homework, even if he ends up running scientific knowledge off the rails when the narrative requires him to). James McAvoy plays a young, seemingly benign man named Dennis who kidnaps three teenage girls on their way home from a birthday party. He takes them-sullen, withdrawn Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), perky birthday girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Claire's popular bestie Marcia (Jessica Sula)-and locks them in a windowless room in the basement of an industrial building, where they await their fate. As it turns out (no real spoiler here), Dennis is not the only person they're dealing with. Dennis's head harbors 23 distinct personalities, which range from an upright woman named Patricia, to a lisping 9-year-old scamp named Hedwig, to a Brooklyn-accented fashion designer named Barry). The film's tension hinges largely on his plans for the three girls, which have something to do with the emergence of a 24th personality, an entity terrifying enough that it is simply called "The Beast."
To dress up the simplicity of the film's narrative, Shyamalan throws in a few complicating subplots. The main one involves Dennis's psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who seems to have dedicated her entire life to the study of people with dissociative identity disorder. She is well aware of Dennis's split personalities and has been working with him long enough that she can detect when one is pretending to be the other. The scenes between McAvoy and Buckley are good, and they help to generate sympathy for McAvoy's character, who is far from a simplified monster, but they also feel like treading water at times, repeating the same narrative information while we wonder what the girls are up to. Shyamalan also cuts back to Casey's childhood, much of which was spent hunting with her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and burly Uncle John (Brad William Henke), which portends some kind of trauma that has led to her sullen state and suggests a possible connection between Casey and the hoard of identities inside her captor's skull. Unfortunately, this narrative strand is never really worked out, or at least the potential connections are never fully made, which is a shame.
However, even with such missed opportunities, Split works as a calculated thriller with little on its mind outside the mechanics of its genre and how they can be geared for maximum impact. The film could have used some trimming (it is Shyamalan's longest to date), but it is hard to imagine leaving any of McAvoy's footage on the floor, as he dives deep into his character's fractured sense of identity, playing up each personality in such a way that it's easy to forget we're looking at the same actor each time. He changes clothes for each personality, which helps separate them visually, but more importantly he invests his multiple performances with little details and nuances that sell that existence of such extreme identities within the same body (Hedwig's flicking eyes when he's trying to work something out, or the little pursing of Patricia's lips). Working with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (It Follows), Shyamalan, freed from the limitations of the found-footage genre, can once again dive into his well of Hitchcock- and Spielberg-inspired visual flourishes, which he does with aplomb. Split ultimately shows that Shyamalan doesn't need a twist to make an intense, engaging thriller that satisfies our morbid inner cravings-although longtime fans of his work will certainly relish what he leaves up his sleeve until the last minute.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Universal Pictures
Overall Rating: (3)
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